The empty white paper waits expectantly while the ink is prepared. There is a moment of suspense, then the brush flies from the ink stone and a continuous flow of bold, black lines appear to dance across the page. These are the impressions one has when watching a calligrapher at work. This month there is an excellent opportunity to discover this fascinating art form through an impressive selection of works by 170 Japanese calligraphy masters on view at Espace Mitsukoshi-Etoile. The show, titled "Masters of Ink," is the first important exhibition on this theme to travel to Europe.
Calligraphy is most often defined in simple terms as "the art of writing," however, in Asia, calligraphy is an artistic expression of major consequence. In Japan, some 14 million people practice writing as an art form, 500 calligraphy associations exist and there is enough interest in the subject to support over 400 specialized art reviews. Needless to say, competition is intense and to be designated as a "master in the art" is a major accomplishment.
The art of Japanese calligraphy was imported from China more than 2,000 years ago. While one can easily visualize the outlines of the moon, a tree or a mountain in the pictograms of many words, there are literally thousands of characters that are far more cursive and abstract. After adopting the Chinese ideograms, the Japanese implemented their own writing system by creating two phonetic scripts known collectively as "kana," which are used in combination with Chinese characters to write modern Japanese.
The earliest examples of Japanese writing are in the forms of poetry and Buddhist scriptures. Traditionally such texts called for highly elegant brushstrokes in the composition of the characters. However, Zen philosophy had a strong impact on Japanese calligraphy. By rejecting the more dogmatic practice of Chinese calligraphy, an original Japanese expression emerged. Simple and direct, this new form of writing became associated with the tea ceremony. Calligraphy as an art form developed from the combined criteria of rendering visible technical dexterity and power in line as well as a strong sense of composition in the placement of characters in space.
The number of precise hand gestures per character can vary between one rapidly traced line to 36 complex brushstrokes that must be executed in perfect order. The strict rules that govern basic writing techniques are the base from which the calligrapher develops a personal style. Works are judged on their vitality and rhythm of line. In this exacting discipline, each drop of ink on paper records a choreography of movement, including the brief moments of respiration between successive strokes.
The seven main categories of calligraphic works include classical poetry written in Chinese characters that retain the essence of ancient Chinese writing styles; "Kana" calligraphy, that uses only the Japanese scripts; and Kindai Shibunsho, a relatively new form which employs a mixture of the ancient Chinese characters and Japanese scripts to write modern poetry or words translated from foreign languages. Another genre is the striking Daijisho, or large character calligraphy, that involves the writing of one or two characters alone as a painting with a strong pictorial element. The carving of stone Tenkoku seals, which are used to sign calligraphic works, is considered to be an art form of its own. A work is considered incomplete unless stamped with the old-style Chinese characters in bright red cinnabar ink.
The art of carving extends to traditional Kokuji sculptural reliefs in which the characters are first painted on a wooden board, then completed as a carving. Since the end of the Second World War, Japanese calligraphers have developed an approach influenced by late-20th century western painting movements. The works of modern masters such as Inoue Yuichi and Uno Sesson take on a deeper resonance when one recalls the tremendous impact which traditional Japanese calligraphy had on abstract expressionistm.
Last year, the jury of Tokyo's annual calligraphy salon received over 30,000 works. When one considers that at least five years of training are necessary to form a solid base for a beginner, these figures seem phenomenal. This excellent exhibition, organized by Mainichi Newspapers, Japan's oldest newspaper company founded in 1872, presents major works by modern masters, clearly explaining the differences between the traditional categories of Japanese calligraphy. In addition, don't miss the fine documentary film that highlights the discipline and gestures of modern "ink masters" at work.
"Les Maîtres de l'Encre 170 Calligraphes â Paris" will be on view at Espace des Arts Mitsukoshi-Etoile through July 11, daily from 10am to 6pm, closed Sun & holidays, 3, rue de Tilsitt, 8e, Metro Etoile, tel: 01.44.09.11.11.